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If you are interested in “time” and how people think about it, write about it, talk about it, visualize it, you should read Joseph Mazur’s The Clock Mirage: Our Myth of Measured Time. There’s much to take issue with, to roll your eyes at now and then, but also much incitement to thought. It is, moreover, a very unusual book, highly “personal” in a way that is both vexing and winsome.

Now, before taking Mazur up, two additional preliminaries. First, in a 2018 column, “A Sense of Time,” I acknowledged that I often get worked up when talking about time, especially when someone trots out that bit from Einstein (“the distinction between past, present, and future is only an illusion, even if a stubborn one”) or a lesser savant denying the reality of time’s arrow. Mazur himself is a denier, sort of, but his heart doesn’t seem to be in it, and he’s a mensch.

Second, I want to quote a passage from John North’s book God’s Clockmaker: Richard of Wallingford and the Invention of Time (2005), a brilliant work (at points beyond my ken) with a complicated history relating to a three-volume project, Richard of Wallingford, published in 1976. At the end of his preface to God’s Clockmaker, North mentions a friend, Francis Maddison,

who first made me aware of the many unanswered questions surrounding the origins of mechanical timekeeping, and who led me into a medieval maze from which there was to be no escape. It was my wife, Marion, however, who—having learned to live with the edition all those years ago—suggested that the time had come to introduce Richard of Wallingford to a more general readership. In doing so, it has been my good fortune to work with Martin Sheppard, a devoted editor of an almost extinct species. I thank him, and all at Hambledon and London [the publisher of God’s Clockmaker], for their timely support.

Do you see what North was doing here, in addition to making generous acknowledgements? He slyly concluded his preface with time-saturated language, suggesting both the ubiquity of “time” in framing our experience and the dizzying range of inflections we give to the concept.

And that leads us back to Mazur. Professor emeritus of mathematics at Marlboro College and a science journalist whose previous books include Fluke: The Math and Myth of Coincidence, he observes in his own preface that “the notion of time itself slips through every attempt to corral it.” Very true, as his book (following Augustine and countless others) makes clear, but his title and subtitle are ill-chosen. “Measured time” is not a myth, and the title’s suggestion that it is a “mirage” is preposterous. Time as measured by clocks is quite real, but our experience of time is many-sided, as shown by Mazur’s interviews with a fascinating range of individuals, sprinkled at intervals throughout his book to complement the argument: long-haul truck drivers, a prisoner sentenced to life without parole, an astronaut, and more. And yet, various as these experiences are, they all bear witness to the arrow of time. 

Both in his preface and again on page 198, Mazur refers to Julian Barnes’s novel The Sense of an Ending. In the preface, he writes:

Perhaps time is, as Julian Barnes suggests in his novel The Sense of an Ending, just a relationship with memory: “I know this much: that there is objective time, but also subjective time, the kind you wear on the inside of your wrist, next to where the pulse lies. And this personal time, which is the true time, is measured in your relationship to memory.”

This passage from Barnes is expertly written but also silly. Both “objective time” and “subjective time” are “true time”! What is it that leads so many intelligent people to want to say otherwise?

In some instances the answer may ultimately be theological. Perhaps it’s not surprising that Mazur entirely dismisses the reality of medieval science (see page 77). But readers whose own sense of time, like Augustine’s, leads to the God who revealed himself in Scripture will nevertheless find much to chew on in Mazur’s humane and wide-ranging book.

John Wilson is a contributing editor for The Englewood Review of Books.

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